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Shipping containers can't be emptied and refilled fast enough to keep up with demand

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

At any time, there are some 30 million shipping containers moving around the globe on ships, trucks and trains. And these days, they are full - a symptom and a contributor to the supply chain problems slowing down how we get our stuff. NPR's Jackie Northam takes a look at how those big metal boxes went from being unknown to indispensable.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Ah, the unassuming shipping container, really nothing more than a big steel box. It's stacked with thousands of others high atop ships plying the world's waterways. Battered by weather and waves, the containers are packed with just about everything you can imagine - fruits and vegetables, cheap clothing and electronics, parts for cars and trucks.

MARC LEVINSON: Globalization, as we know it today, would not have been possible without the container.

NORTHAM: Marc Levinson is an economist, historian and the author of two books on shipping containers, "The Box" and "Outside The Box." He says before containers, shipping was prohibitively expensive. Every piece of cargo had to be loaded separately.

LEVINSON: And on a typical vessel in the 1950s, you might have 200,000 different items. And then each had to be taken out of a ship separately when the ship arrived in port. So it took a long time to load and unload a ship. There was a lot of cargo that was damaged. There was a lot of cargo that was lost or stolen.

NORTHAM: Levinson says in 1956, an American entrepreneur named Malcolm McLean organized the first modern container ship. He owned a trucking company and was looking for ways to avoid congestion on the highways. Levinson says McLean came up with the idea of taking the containers off his trucks and putting them on ships.

LEVINSON: His first ship was called the Ideal-X. It was a tanker that had been built during World War II. The deck was essentially a frame into which the containers could be secured. It carried 58 containers.

NORTHAM: The first international container ship voyage was in 1966, between Newark and Rotterdam in the Netherlands. Janet Porter with Lloyd's List, a London-based maritime information service, says after that shipping changed. New trade routes were formed. Special cranes were invented for loading and unloading containers. And there were bigger ships. Porter remembers in 1996 seeing what was then the world's largest container ship. It could carry 6,000 containers.

JANET PORTER: And it was seen as absolutely huge. It was, like, barriers had been broken. And now, I mean, there's just - they're tiddlers. I mean, now the biggest ships are about 24,000.

NORTHAM: Containers are used now for more than just shipping. They're transformed in many parts of the world into makeshift schools, restaurants, clinics and prisons. Architects in wealthier countries are turning them into high-end modular homes. Amanda Gattenby is with the California-based CRATE Modular, which buys empty containers from ports. They're then converted into affordable housing, apartment buildings and interim housing for the homeless.

AMANDA GATTENBY: They have full insulation, full electrical, full plumbing. We can put in stand-up showers with tile, bathtubs, air-conditioning and heating, beautiful millwork. They have high ceilings.

NORTHAM: Now in the pandemic, people are buying so many more goods, it's creating a huge demand for the containers, more than tripling their price and leading to a shortage, says Porter with Lloyd's List.

PORTER: The reason there's a shortage is because a lot of them are stuck on ships that are waiting outside ports because of this supply chain crisis. So those containers can't be moved back to where they're needed.

NORTHAM: In other words, the shipping containers can't be unloaded fast enough to be sent back to Asia, where they'll be used again to help meet consumer demand. China, which is the world's largest manufacturer of shipping containers, is trying to pick up the slack. Companies there produced 300,000 containers in September alone. But no matter how many there are, the supply chain crisis won't be solved until the containers are more quickly unloaded and turned around.

Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.